Saturday, November 29, 2003

V-E Day (Dobama)


In 1992 a box of newsletters written during the Second World War were dropped off at The Cleveland Jewish News. Fortunately, the material found its way to Faye Sholitan, one of the paper’s writers. ‘Hello Again,” the monthly publication was circulated to Cleveland GIs as a morale booster. It contained hometown gossip centering on those who had attended Glenville High School, ate at Mawby’s on Lee Road, danced their nights away at the Statler Bar, were tended to in Mount Sinai Hospital, and attended Silver’s Temple on Ansel Road and East 105th Street. It noted the happy events in life back home.

Besides being a reporter, Sholitan is a playwright. As such, she was moved by the voices whom she later knew as her parents’ friends. ‘V-E DAY’ is her salute to the people who wrote and whose lives were noted in “Hello Again.” The original publications can be found at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Copies are at the Beachwood Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

‘V-E DAY’ was recently awarded first prize in the Arlene R. and William P. Lewis Playwriting Contest sponosred by Brigham Young University which honors women writers.

‘V-E DAY’ tells the tale of the now 79-year old Evelyn Bergfeld, who appears to have spent her happiest years during World War II. It reveals how she won and lost Bernard Cohen, the real love of her life. It relates how she went on to marry another man. How she traversed through that marriage and motherhood with little joy. How she literally and figuratively buries her life. How, in her later years, she submerges into depression, unable to find happiness in anything except buying unneeded goods on the Home Shopping Network and harassing her daughter and caretakers. Depressed until....(let’s stop there, no sense in giving away the whole plot). Let’s just say, it’s amazing what happens when the potential for happiness, no matter what age, becomes a possibility.

Sholiton presents the material through a series of present day happenings and simultatenous flashbacks. We meet all the major characters in their present as well as their early selves. Several times the cross fades between this and the past worlds get blurred due either to lighting errors or a lack of verbal or physical transitional qualities, but the writing device generally works well. The ending of the play confused the audience. After what appeared to be an ending line and a blackout, and hardy applause, the lights came up on yet another scene which didn’t add much to the play’s purpose.

Director Jacqi Loewy honed the performance well. She kept the action crisp and left little unclear and aided her actors to develop realistic characters.

Set designer Mark Kobak created a workable and well-detailed set. The only confusion came with an imaginary entrance door. The first arrival through the invisible entry gave the illusion that the character might be a figment of Evelyn’s confuision or imagination rather than a real person. Since all other aspects of the set were so realistic, a real entrance space was needed.

The cast was outstanding. As Evelyn, Rhoda Rosen walked the tight-rope between depression and senility with clarity. She was absolutely believable in what could have been a caricature performance. Talent, talent, talent!!!! It was easy to grasp Mitch Field’s years of longing to have spent his life with Evelyn. Jennifer Clifford, Michael John Sestli, and Holly Humes were totally believable as the young Evie and Bernie and Bernie’s sister Lil. Juliette Regnier was alternately frustrated and empathic as Evelyn’s daughter Aimee. Jennifer Salkin was fine as Young Aimee.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘V-E DAY’ is a lovely little play filled with humor and pathos. Its life expectancy might be limited with all the Cleveland references. Local people who lived through the WWII era will “qvell” over reliving that time. Others will be intrigued by this slice of historical life.

Three Tall Woman (Ensemble)

‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ thought provoking at Ensemble

In the late 1950s the United States was searching for a new understanding of itself. The country had just been involved in the war to end all warsand was in ascendence as THE world leader. The theatre, along with the other arts, took on the role of creating a look at what the country was and should be. Writers like Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Arthur Miller brought dramatic arts into the world of theatrical realism. By the late 60s, however, with the birth of movements toward integration, stands against repression, and frustration with the political paths taken by the US government, the Theatre of the Absurd reared its head. Represented by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee the movement was based in existentialism asking “Why do we exist?” Albee is one of the only writers of that era to remain on the theatrical scene. He is still writing in the absurdist mode. Absurd, in this case, doesn’t mean ridiculous, it stands for “out-of-kilter.” It allows the writer to pen one thing, while representing something else, something with deeper meanings. Think “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf doesn’t appear in the play, her words are not spoken, yet her philosophy and beliefs are strongly alluded to in the play’s messages of frustration, impotency, failure and futility.

One of Albee’s most recent writings, ‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ continues his absurdist bent. This play takes place in the bedroom of a sick and forgetful old woman, named (A). In the first act she is cared for by a middle-aged companion (B) and visited by a young woman (C) sent by the lawyer to settle some financial affairs. They discuss the human condition with its love, pain, wit, sex, and inevitable decline. At the end of the first act, (A) suffers a stroke that leaves her on the edge of death. The irony of the play centers in the second act when we realize that A, B and C are all the same person at different stages of her life.

As he did in ‘WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, Albee lays bare the pettiness and self deception in our lives. He asks, “What if you could see and speak to the person you once were? What if you were able to speak to the person you are predetermined to become?” What difference would it make in your life? Would you live life differently?

Albee also adds a twist by having A’s alienated son turn up at her bedside to say goodbye. This may have been Albee’s own way of dealing with his negative relationship with his adoptive mother. The son, who speaks not a word in the play though he is on stage for almost all of the second act, has tears streaming down his face as the play draws to a close. Yet another question arises. “Is the Albee’s stand-in crying because of the lack of a good relationship or finally being able to say goodbye? What’s the message for the audience on how to live?

Interestingly, ‘THREE TALL WOMEN”won Albee his third Pulitzer Prize even though it never has played Broadway.

Ensemble Theatre’s production does not quite live up to the words “witty, hilarious, haunting, and swimming in the dark pools of the human heart's most inner secrets,” which were used by reviewers of other productions to describe their theatrical experience. Though they tried valiantly, director Licia Columbi and her cast just couldn’t overcome this very wordy script, full of shaded dialogue and long monologues and little action.

Columbi uses the small intimate space of the Cleveland Play House’s Black Box Theatre well. She continues to create triangles of staging so that all the actors can easily be seen by the audience which surrounds the stage on three-sides. Like the corners of an equilateral triangle, each character has the same strength and power. The reason for this becomes clear in the second act, when we realize that we are seeing the same person at different times in her life.

All three actresses are proficient. Bernice Bolek as (A,) the old lady, swings from mean to manipulating to insightful but sometimes misses the extremes of rationality and irrationality. Sherri Britton as (B), though at times appears to be in control of the character, is somwhat inconsistent, especially in the first act when she fails to establish a clear personality concept. After a stiff and uncertain first act, Bernadette Clemens as (C) blossoms in the second act, allowing for an understanding of why A becomes irascible in her later life. Jesse Kamps portrays the tortured son with amazing control. He flows forth real tears at exactly the right moment.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble seems to be doing its best work since moving to the CPH space. Though it does not have the emotional highs and lows of ‘WHOSE AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’, ‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ does carry a clear probing set of messages in question form. If you love theatre, and can endure a very talky show, you’ll appreciate the Ensemble production.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Jeffrey (Beck Center)

'JEFFREY' agonizes at Beck

The theatre has been an important vehicle in spreading the word about needed social changes. The women’s movement and African Americans both have used the stage to show the necessity for alterating attitudes towards their groups.

The emerging gay movement has also taken on the theatrical vehicle to shout for equal rights. When gay message plays are well-focused and honed they serve the movement well. Such shows as ‘ANGELS IN AMERICA,’ ‘BOYS IN THE BAND,’ ‘LA CAGES AUX FOLLES,’ ‘TAKE ME OUT’ and ‘THE GENE POOL’ have investigated religious intolerance, homophobia, gays in sports, AIDS, homosexual parenting, self guilt, and gay marriage.

Unfortunately, such plays as ‘THE PARTY,’ ‘MAKING PORN,’ and ‘PUPPY DOG TALE’ center on only looking at the sexual aspects of gay life, feeding into the stereotype of gays as being solely carnal beings. Though it attempts to be a message play, ‘JEFFREY,’ now on stage at Beck Center’s Studio Theatre, fringes on being one of the latter writings.

Written by Paul Rudnick, author of the hysterically funny ‘I HATE HAMLET,’ the plot centers on Jeffrey, a young gay male who, in the 90s age of AIDS vows eternal celibacy in the now dangerous world of sex and relationships.

The vehicle is billed as a “hysterical comedy.” Though there are laughs, this is more than a comedy, as the author attempts to make this a message play. In the process, he creates audience confusion. He takes a serious subject and pushes it to such extremes that the gimmickry often overpowers the message. In one scene, while agonizing over the death of his partner, a character proposes, “We want no more prejudice, no more disease.” Rudnick then changes course when he extends the speech with the phrase, “and no more chintz.” He takes away the power of the message by adding the “fey” stereotype. In another scene he states, “life is radio active” and goes on seriously to show the audience the effects of AIDS. No comedy here.

The play covers every aspect of gay-oriented subjects...physical obsession; evangelism; illness; gay bashing; gay stereotypes of the love of opera, theatre, decorating, clothing; 12-step programs; parental attitudes; and sexual acting out. Also thrown in is Mother Teresa, who wanders in and out of scenes.

This is not to say the play is bad. It will appeal to a “certain” audience. It did win the Obie Award and the Outer Critics’ Circle Award. This notwithstanding, the play is superficial and stresses the sexual aspect so that even the “happy ending” allows the lead character to give into his sexual desires. It’s as if sex conquers all. Is that really what Rudnick wants us to believe?

Director Brian Zoldessy works some of the laugh angles well. The emotional content is left somewhat unattended.

As he did at Actors’ Summit when he portrayed Alan in ‘PICNIC,’ Scott Esposito proves he is one of the best of the area’s young new crop of actors. He textures the role of Jeffrey with humor and drama. His is a very fine performance.

Mark Cipro adds the right levels of exaggerated humor and pathos as Sterling, the aging interior decorator who loses his young lover to AIDS. Molly McGinnis is fine as she covers all the women’s roles including portraying an evangelist, a sexoholic and Mother Teresa. Some of the other cast members do not fare as well as they are placed in performing stereotypes which become unbelievable.

The set adds to the plays consistent inconsistence. Don McBride’s set is a visual delight. However, it, as the play and production, creates confusion. The comic book intense colors and drawings of the New York skyline give a feeling of glee that overshadows the serious message of the play.

Capsule judgement: ‘JEFFREY,’ due to its subject matter, language, production qualities and writing style is not for everyone. Audience members seemed divided on their appreciation. About one-quarter of the house left at intermission, others applauded with delight, if for no other reason, than having seen handsome Scott Esposito in nothing but his tighty-whities.

Plaid Tidings (Cleveland Play House)

‘PLAID TIDINGS’ happily rings in the holiday at CPH

It’s that time of year again. Entertainment centers are raising their curtains on ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL,’ ‘THE NUTCRACKER’ and a lot of other holiday treats. Why should the Cleveland Play House be different?

Cleveland audiences have had a long time love-affair with the Plaid offerings. ‘FOREVER PLAID,’ this show’s predecessor, re-opened the Allen Theatre in Play House Square. ‘PLAIN\D TIDINGS’ has been performed two other times in the country, but it has been re-written for the CPH presentation and is being called a “near premiere performance”

Just before the opening night performance, CPH Artistic Director Peter Hackett, in a delightful speech, informed the audience that Randy Rineck, one of the performers, had laryngitis and was being replaced by the show’s Associate Director Robert Randle. The audience, in a jovial mood (the gala party before the show had “whetted” many throats) just took it all in. The substitution mattered little as the show went on with nary a hitch.

Complete with boy-group gestures of the 50s, the quartet, mellowed-in with tributes to Rosemary Clooney, the Ed Sullivan Show, and Perry Como. They used gimmicks galore to delight the audience. Sing alongs, audience participation, bell interludes, and video clips all added to the fun.

“Let It Snow” was a total delight. The beat version of “Twuz Duh Night Before Christmas” was met with prolonged applause. A cleverly staged “Matilda, Matilda” complete with Italian, Hawaiian, Spanish, Irish and Jewish calypso was a show stopper.
You name the holiday song it was included, plus some.

The cast, consisting of Jody Ashworth, Jonathan Brody, Scott Fedderly and Robert Randle were very good. Fedderly, who has a fine voice, an electric stage presence and can dance, was especially good.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Some might say that ‘PLAID TIDINGS,’ a musical review with a meager plot and oft-done holiday songs, is not an appropriate offering for a theatre which proposes to be “one of the greatest theatres in America.” Well, BAH, HUMBUG! If you want to sit back, feel good, and escape from the world’s problems...’PLAID TIDINGS’ is your thing!

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Ohio Ballet Fall Repertory Program-2003 (Ohio Ballet)


In contrast to the Kirov’s packed houses, the recent performances by the Ohio Ballet at the Ohio Theatre had much smaller attendance. Too bad, because the Ohio Ballet’s Fall Repertory Program was one of their best offerings since Jeffery Graham Hughes took over as the company’s Artistic Director.

A smorgasbord of offerings, the audience was exposed to everything from serious classical ballets, dynamic humorous moves, and drum-band accompanied movements.

The evening opened with the world premiere of “Rossini Dances.” The number was choreographed by former Cleveland Ballet prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory. Gregory was an elegant dancer who captivated the stage with her control and excellence. Though the ballet doesn’t quite hit her level of performance, it was a fine example of classic choreography. The women were joyous, the men had some difficulty in their timing. Fine stage pictures and movements well fit Rossini’s “String Sonata No. 6 in D Major.”

A series of very short pieces followed. “In Nuit,” which was accompanied by David Fisher on the piano, Larissa Freude performed effectively. Her toe-work was outstanding.

The ever-beautiful “Dying Swan” was presented with the classic choreography of Michael Fokine as restaged by Isabelle Fokine. Performed to the piano artistry of David Fisher, the music of Camille Saint-Saens from the “Carnaval des Animaux Suite” was beautiful. Eva Trapp was competent in the role of the swan in the final stages of life. She fluttered to her death compassionately, though the enthralling elegance of prima ballerinas was missing.

“Esmeralda Pas De Deux,”presented as a company premiere, is a nice patterned piece. Toby George, whose forte is high leaps, and Amanda Cobb who moves well and is lovely with her constant smile, partnered well. Again David Fisher accompanied the duo playing Cesare Pugni’s music.

One of the highlights of the evening was Sam Watson’s contemporary “Wired.” Actually, the title “Unwired” might have been better for this Pilobus-type number. Bouncing, intertwining, bouncing off each other, rolling on the floor, the piece defies description. How about, “it was a blast, a hoot, a fun interlude.” Damien Highfield and Brian Murphy appeared to have a ball in this non-traditional piece.

Jeffrey Graham Hughes’ “Ballet Ramajay” received its world premiere as the finale of the program. Danced to a combination of sprightly, reggae, contemporary music performed by the excellent University of Akron Steel Drum Band, the choreography fit the music well. Though at times there was a lack of coordinated timing in the dancing there was enough creativity to make up for the minuses. A.Christina Giannini’s costume design was wonderful. The dancers flashed across the stage in multi-colored creative pieces of material. Hughes did an excellent job of coordinating the movements to the sounds. The highlights were “The Girl From Ipanema”a sprightly interpretation by Amanda Cobb and Toby George, and “Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm” finely performed by Ashley Bowman and Damien Highfield.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ohio Ballet’s “Fall Repertory Program” was a fine evening of dance. Let’s hope that future programs live up to this.

La Bayadere--Kirov Ballet (Playhouse Square Center)

Prestigious Kirov Ballet not up to par at the State Theatre

The Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia is truly one of the world’s class dance organizations. For more than 200 years the company has performed with excellence, no matter the political climate of the country. It is the company that probably, more than any other, conceived what we know as classical ballet. Their traditional moves, costumes and story line development is the model for what other companies do if they want to emulate the established pattern of excellence. This is the company that produced such luminaries as Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

It is fortunate that the company has 130 dancers as they experienced a series of problems as they headed for their Cleveland performances. Injuries and dancers going with other companies resulted in our area not seeing the Kirov at its best. I saw the Saturday night performance of ‘LA BAYADERE.’ It lacked excitement. The lead dancers had no charisma. The cast, at times, seemed to have been walking through the performance. It was too bad as the productions, fanned in part by the large local Russian immigrant audience, had near full-houses.

Even with the second-team performers, anyone having viewed the productions was immediately aware of the differences between contemporary ballet and the traditional style. Exaggerated hand movements, bigger than life facial and body reactions, and posturing were seen throughout. Like classic opera, realism is not the issue, visual imagery is.

The most spectacular segment of the production took place during Act III, “The Kingdom of Shades.” A line of thirty female dancers on point dressed in white tutus, wove their way one at a time down a series of ramps. The effect was breathtaking.

Capsule judgement: The Kirov Ballet was not up to its prestigious reputation in its presentation in Cleveland

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Carole Clement reviews the reviewer

To: Roy Berko
From: Carole Clement
Subject: review: Discordia (CPT)


I was at CPT Friday, and sadly, I must agree with everything you wrote in your
review--and perhaps more. Other reviews that are coming out today are
vicious. Essentially, they say what you said, but with venom & personal
attacks against actors. Their reviews are so mean-spirited that it's easy
for those involved with Discordia to deny them.

And that's a shame, because there is some truth in those reviews.

While the Discordia company isn't happy about what you said, they aren't
dismissing it out of hand, & that's because of your measured & tempered
evaluation. You are an asset to the Cleveland theater scene & a credit to
thoughtful humanity.

Thanks for being there.


Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Varla Jean Merman (Cleveland Public Theatre)


Varla Jean Merman is a sensation on the drag queen impersonation circuit. Her third appearance at the Cleveland Public Theatre, like her other stays-in-residence, delighted the audience.

Her signature shticks: the hot dog puppet that speaks, singing while shooting canned cheese whiz down her throat, her double entendre tales, her allusion to being the daughter of a moment of wild passion between Earnest Borgnine and Ethel Merman, and the home movies of her life, were all present.

I know it’s not her purpose, but sometime I’d really like to hear Jeffery Roberson, who portrays Varla Jean, just stand on stage and sing. This guy/gal has a wonderful voice. But, like the late Victor Borge, who was an accomplished pianist, Roberson has chosen to settle on comedy as his vehicle to fame. And, there is no doubt he has found a positive means of showcasing himself. Varla Jean Merman makes for a fun evening of theatre.

Capsule judgement: Next time Roberson is back in town, catch his act. You’ll enjoy yourself.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Playhouse Square Center)

‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ less than expected

At the 2002 Tony Award ceremony when ‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ was announced as the winner of the Best Musical there was an audible gasp in the audience. It was expected that ‘URINETOWN’ was going to receive that coveted award. Clevelanders who subscribe to the Playhouse Square Broadway series will be allowed to make the evaluation themselves.

Having seen both shows, I know that I would have definitely chosen the creative, tune-worthy, staging-worthy ‘URINETOWN.’ I find MILLIE to be a pedestrian musical with a weak book, a weaker score, and repetitious music. That is not to say audiences will not like it. They will, as was demonstrated by the partial standing ovation the show received at its opening performance in the local run. Of course, standing ovations in Cleveland are not symbols of great shows or performances as they’ve become as common as clapping.

Based on the 1967 movie of the same name, the hokey story-line of Millie centers on the arrival in New York of a Kansas “hick” named (no surprise here) Millie. In contrast to the lead character in ‘42ND STREET,’ the musical most like MILLIE, this cutie is out to get a husband, a rich husband. Millie accidentally runs into Jimmy, a handsome young man, while she is chasing a thug who has stolen her purse and a shoe. (Yes, one shoe. Now do you understand the hokeyness of this story?) He is some “poor” guy who doesn’t fall into her description of a future husband (well, not yet). Through a series of incidents which include a kidnapping ring who capture orphan Caucasian young ladies and ship them to the Orient (I told you this was hokey), a young debutante from “California” (the quote marks because, of course, that is not true and unravels as the story proceeds), a pair of Chinese who are working as part of the kidnapping ring because they have been promised if they cooperate their mother will be brought to the US (can you believe that one?), a famous African American female singer who married for money, and...well, you get the point. This goes on and on and on and doesn’t get any better.

Songs from the show include “The Nuttycracker Suite,” “Only in New York,” “Forget About the Boy,”and the four-time reprised “Not for the Life of Me.” Never heard of any of them? That about summarizes the score. Oh, yes, there is the title tune, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and though it is included, it wasn’t even written for this show, as were three other numbers that are included.

The cleverest parts of the show are when there are actually take-offs of other musicals and songs. A Chinese version of Al Jolsen’s “Mammy” and a Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald-like duet of “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” are delightful. Of course, they have nothing to do with the story line, but who cares. Another “neat-o” shtick is a screen over of the actors’ heads, which displays the English translations of spoken and sung Chinese. It’s like the Cleveland Opera telling us what the words to ‘CARMEN’ mean.

The touring production doesn’t use the State Theatre stage well. They usually perform in smaller venues, so the scenery and movements scrunch in the action. The postage stamp design doesn’t work well.

Even the dancing fails to make an impact. Though enthusiastically carried out by the cast, the movements become boring due to repetition. How many flapper hand and foot movements can one appreciate?

The cast is adequate. Darcie Roberts as Millie has a wonderful voice, but not the infectious personality and cuteness that is needed to captivate an audience. Matt Cavenaugh is handsome enough to portray Jimmy, and his voice has good range, but a false attitude takes the edge off the character. Diana Kaarina as Dorothy is Bernadette Peters cute and has a similar voice. Hollis Resnik’s Mrs. Meers, the head of the kidnapping ring, becomes more and more irritating as the show progresses. On the other hand, Pamela Isaac, as the rich chanteusse, has a wonderful voice and belts “Only in New York” with pizzazz.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ is a pleasant-enough escapist piece of fluff. If you liked ‘42ND STREET’ you’ll like this. If not, wait for ‘URINETOWN.’ It’s a creative winner.